The CSCW view of Knowledge Management

Earlier this week I attended a session given by the research ethics folk at my institution. One of the observations was that they’d run training sessions but almost no-one came. I’ve heard similar observations from L&T folk, librarians, and just about anyone else aiming to help academics develop new skills. Especially when people spend time and effort developing yet another you beaut website or booklet that provides everything one would want to know about a topic. There’s also the broader trope developing about academics/teachers being digitally illiterate, which I’m increasingly seeing as unhelpful and perhaps even damaging.

Hence my interest when I stumbled across Ackerman et al (2013) a paper titled “Sharing knowledge and expertise: The CSCW View” with the abstract

Knowledge Management (KM) is a diffuse and controversial term, which has been used by a large number of research disciplines. CSCW, over the last 20 years, has taken a critical stance towards most of these approaches, and instead, CSCW shifted the focus towards a practice-based perspective. This paper surveys CSCW researchers’ viewpoints on what has become called ‘knowledge sharing’ and ‘expertise sharing’. These are based in an understanding of the social contexts of knowledge work and practices, as well as in an emphasis on communication among knowledgeable humans. The paper provides a summary and overview of the two strands of knowledge and expertise sharing in CSCW, which, froman analytical standpoint, roughly represent ‘generations’ of research: an ‘object-centric’ and a ‘people-centric’ view.We also survey the challenges and opportunities ahead.

What follows are a summary and some thoughts on the paper.

Thoughts? Possibilities?

The paper’s useful in that it appears to give a good overview of the work from CSCW on this topic. Relevant to some of the problem being faced around digital learning.

All this is especially interesting to me due to my interest in exploring the design and impact of distributed means of sharing knowledge about digital learning

Look at Cabitza and Simone (2012) – two levels of information, and affording mechanisms – as informing design. Their work on knowledge artifacts (Cabitza et al, 2008) might also be interesting.

Brown and Duguid’s (2000) Network of Practice is a better fit for what I’m thinking here.

CSCW has a tendency to precede development with ethnographic studies.

Learning object repositories?

Given the fairly scathing findings re: the idea of repositories, what does this say about current University practices around learning object repositories?

Is digitally illiterate a bad place to start?

The “sharing expertise” approach would appear to assume that the people you’re trying to help have knowledge to share. Labeling teachers as digitally illiterate would appear to mean you couldn’t even conceptualise this as a possibility. Is this a core problem here?

The shift from system to individual practice

At some level the shift in the CSCW work illustrates a shift from focusing on IT systems to a focus on individual practices. The V&R mapping process illustrates some of this.

Context and embedding is important

Findings reinforce the contextual and situated nature of knowledge (is that a bias from the assumptions of these researchers?). Does this explain many of the problems currently being faced? i.e. what’s being done at the moment is neither contextual nor situated? Would addressing this improve outcomes?


A topic dealt with by different research communities (Information Systems, CSCL, Computer Science) each with their particular focus and limitations. e.g. CS has developed interesting algorithms but “Empirical explroations into the practice of knowledge-intense work have been typically lacking in this discourse” (p. 532).

The CSCW strength has been “to have explore the relationship between innovative computational artifacts and knowledge work – from a micro-perspective” (p. 532)

Uses two different terms that “connote CSCW’s spin on the problem” i.e.

that knowledge is situated in people and in location, and that the social is an essential part of using any knowledge…far more useful systems can be developed if they are grounded in an analysis of work practices and do not ignore the social aspects of knowledge sharing. (p. 532)

  1. Knowledge sharing – knowledge is externalised so that it can be captured/manipulated/shared by technology.
  2. Expertise sharing – where the capability/expertise to do work is “based on discussions among knowledgeable actors and less significantly supported by a priori externalizations”

Speak of generations of knowledge management

  1. Repository models of information and knowledge.
    Ignoring the social nature of knowledge, focused on externalising knowledge.
  2. Sharing expertise
    Tying communication among people into knowledge work. Either through identifying how best to “find” who has the knowledge or on creating online communities to allow people to share their knowledge. – expertise finders, recommenders, and collaborative help systems.
    Work later scaled to Internet size systems and communities – collectives, inter-organisational networks etc.

Repository model

started with attempts “to build vast repositories of what they knew” (p. 533).

it should be noted that CSCW never really accepted that this model would work in practice (p. 534)…Reducing the richness of collective memory to specific information artifacts was utopian (p. 537)

Findings from various CSCW repository studies

  • Standard issues with repository systems
    particularly difficulty with motivating users to author and organize the material and to maintain the information and its navigation

  • Context is important.

    Some systems tackled the problem of context by trying to channel people to expertise that was as local as possible based on the assumption that “people nearby an asker would know more about local context and might be better at explaining than might experts”.

    Other research found “difficulties of reuse and the organisation of the information into repositories over time, especially when context changed…showed that no organisational memory per se existed; the perfect repository was a myth” (p. 534)

  • Need to embed.

    such a memory could be constructed and used, but the researchers also found they needed to embed both the system and the information in both practice and in the organizational context

  • situated and social.

    CSCWin general has assumed that understanding situated use was critical to producing useful, and usable, systems (Suchman 1987;Suchman and Wynn 1984) and that usability and usefulness are social and collaborative in nature (p. 537)

  • deviations seen as useful

    Exceptions in organizational activities, instead of being assumed to be deviations from correct procedures, were held to be ‘normal’ in organizational life (Suchman 1983) and to be examined for what they said about organizational activity, including information handling (Randall et al. 2007;Schmidt 1999) (p. 537)

  • issues in social creation, use, and reuse of information.

    • issues of motivation,
      Getting information is hard. Aligning reward structures a constant problem. The idea of capturing all knowledge clashed with a range of factors, especially in competitive organisational settings.
    • context in reuse,
      “processes of decontextualisation and recontextualisation loomed over the repository model” (p. 538). “This is difficult to achieve, and even harder to achieve for complex problems” (p. 539).
    • assessments of reliability and authoritativeness,
      de/recontextualisation is social/situated. Information is assessed based on: expertise of the author, reliability, authoritativeness, quality, understandability, the provisional/final nature of he information, obsolescense and completeness, is it officialy vetted?
    • organizational politics, maintenance, and
      “knowledge sharing has politics” (p. 539). Who is and can author/change information impacts use. Categories/meta data of/about data has politics.
    • reification
      “repository systems promote an objectified view of knowledge” (p. 540)

Repository work has since been commercialised.

Some of this work is being re-examined/done due to new methods: machine learning and crowd-sourcing.

Boundary objects – “critical to knowledge sharing. Because of their plasticity of meaning boundary objects serve as translation mechanisms for ideas, viewpoints, and values across otherwise difficult to traverse social boundaries. Boundary objects are bridges between different communities of practice (Wenger 1998) or social worlds (Strauss 1993).” (p. 541)

“information objects that have meaning on both sides of an intra-organisational or inter-organisational boundary”.

CSCW tended to focus on “tractable information processing objects” (p. 542) – forms etc. – easier to implement but “over-emphasis on boundary objects as material artifact, which can limit the analytical power that boundary objects bring to understanding negotiation and mediation in routine work”

Example – T-Matrix – supporting production of a tire and innovation.

Cabitz and Simone (2012) identify two levels of information

  1. awareness promoting information – current state of the activity
  2. knowledge evoking information – triggering previously acquired knowledge or triggering/supporting learning and innovation

Also suggest “affording mechanisms”

Other terms

  1. “boundary negotiating” objects
    Less structured ideas of boundary objects suggested
  2. knowledge artifacts – from Cabitza et al (2013)

    a physical, i.e., material but not necessarily tangible, inscribed artifact that is collaboratively created, maintained and used to support knowledge- oriented social processes (among which knowledge creation and exploita- tion, collaborative problem solving and decision making) within or across communities of practice…. (p. 35)

    These are inherently local, remain open for modification. Can stimulate socialisation and internalisation of knowledge.

common information spaces – common central archive (repository?) used by distributed folk. Open and malleable by nature. A repository is closed/finalised, CIS isn’t. Various work to make the distinction – e.g. degrees of distribution; kinds of articulation work and artifacts required, the means of communication , and the differences in frames of participant reference.

Various points made as to the usefulness of this abstraction.


  • Assembly – “denote an organised collection of information objects”
  • Assemblages – “would include the surrounding practices and culture around an object or collection” (p. 545)

How assemblies are put together and their impacts is of interest.

Sharing expertise

Emphasis on interpersonal communications over externalisation in IT artifacts. “ascribed a more crucial role to the practices of individuals” (p. 547). A focus on sharing tacit knowledge – including contextual knowledge.

tacit/explicit – Nonaka’s mistake – explicit mention of the misinterpretation of Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge. The mistaken assumption/focus was on making tacit knowledge explicit. When Polanyi used tacit to describe knowledge that was very hard, if not impossible to make explicit.

Tacit knowledge can be learned only through common experiences, and therefore, contact with others, in some form, is required for full use of the information. (p. 547)

Community of practice “roughly be defined as a group that works toegher in a certain domain and whose members share a common practice”.

Network of practice (from Brown and Duguid, 2000) – members do not necessarily work together, but work on similar issues in a similar way.

Community of Interest – defined by common interests, not common practice. Diversity is a source of creativity and innovation.

I like this critique of the evolution of use of CoP

Intrinsically based in their view of ‘tacit knowledge,’ the Knowledge Management community appropriated CoP in an interventionist manner. CoPs were to be cultivated or even created (Wenger et al. 2002), and they became fashionable as ‘the killer application for knowledge management practitioners’ (Su andWilensky 2011, p. 10) with supposedly beneficial effects on knowledge exchange within groups. (p. 547)

CSCW didn’t use CoPs in an interventionist way – instead as an analytical lens.

Social capital – from Bourdieu – “refers to the collective abilities derived from social networks”. Views sharing “in the relational and empathic dimension of social networks” (p. 548).

Nahapiet and Ghoshal (1998) suggest it consists of 3 dimensions

  1. Structural opportunity (‘who’ shares and ‘how’);
    Which is where the technical enters the picture.
  2. Cognitive ability (‘what’ is shared);
  3. Relational motivation (‘why’ and ‘when’ people engage)

Latter 2 dimensions not often considered by system designers.

The sharing approach places emphasis on “finding-out” work. Where knowledge is found by knowing/asking others and in finding the source, de-contextualising and then re-contextualising. Often involves “local knowledge” – which tends to have an emergent nature. What’s important is only known in the situation at hand and who holds it evolves within a concrete situation.

People finding and expertise location

Move from focusing on representations of data to the interactions between people – trying to produce and modify them. Tackling technical, organisational and social issues simultaneously.

Techniques include: information retrival, network analysis, topics of interest, expertise determination.

Profile construction can be contentious – privacy, identification of expertise. Especially given “big data” approaches to analysing and identification.

Expertise finding’s 3 stages: identification, selection, escalation.

Need to promote awareness of individual expertise and their availability – “based in ‘seeing’ others’ activities” (p. 551)

“people prefer others with whom they share a social connection to complete strangers” (p. 553) – no surprise there – but people known directly weren’t chosen as they were deemed not likely to have any greater expertise. Often people who were 2 or 3 degrees of separation away.

Profiles also found by one study to be often out of date. Explored “peripheral awareness” as a solution.

Open issues

  • Development of personal profiles.
  • Privacy and control.
  • Accuracy.

Finding others Lot of work outside CSCW.

CoI in the form of web Q&A communities have arising on the Internet. With research that has studied question classification, answer quality, user satisfaction, motivation and reputation.


  • more money = more answers, but not necessarily better quality.
  • charitable contributions increased credibility of answers “in a nuanced way”?
  • Altruism and reputation building two important motivations

Recent research looking at “social Q&A” – how people use social media to answer – two lines of research (echoing above)

  1. social analysis of existing systems;
    Looking at: impact of tie strength on answer quality, org setting, response rates when asking strangers – especially with quick, non-personal answers, community size and contact rate.
  2. technical development of new systems

Future directions

Interconnected practices: expertise infrastructures

Increasing inter-connectedness

  • may cause “experts” to become anonymous.
  • propel new types of interactions via micro-activities – microtasking environments make it easy/convenient to help
  • Collaboratively constructed information spaces – wikipedia – numerous papers examiner how it was constructed, including work looking more broadly at Wikis
  • Other research looked at github, mozilla bug reports etc.
  • And work looking at social media, microblogging etc and its use.


Ackerman, M. S., Dachtera, J., Pipek, V., & Wulf, V. (2013). Sharing Knowledge and Expertise: The CSCW View of Knowledge Management. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 22(4-6), 531–573. doi:10.1007/s10606-013-9192-8

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